Schools can be ghastly and grim. You know, when the blooming science teacher can’t get it—the lighthouse you created with paper is the science project. When the Hindi teacher is your own Voldemort, but with a pathological obsession for food and who is convinced your lefthandedness is a sinister thing.
Stanley cohabits such bullies in Holy Family High School for boys—in Class IV, Section F, to be exact. It is a school for children of the middle-class. Education is traditionally Indian and boring. The school has narrow corridors, an unmanicured playground, terraces of corrugated cement, austere classrooms and a baroque, life-size statue of Mother Mary and Jesus. The school is Stanley’s world. He is Mr Popular among classmates. The boy has imagination and pluck, and a heroic self-sufficiency about him. He’s the fourth-grader the young and winsome “English teacher” of the school adores and gluttonous Voldermont scorn and disfavour.
In Amole Gupte’s beguilingly simple film Stanley ka Dabba, childhood is innocent, optimistic and heroic, but without the methodic confines of forced performance. We have watched, but in utter distress, children in Indian films trying hard to be children—purring, mumbling and screeching their way through roles. Gupte’s film is refreshingly real. It emerged out of an interactive theatre workshop that the writer-director (the writer and creative director of Taare Zameen Par) was conducting with school children. Some of the children were not aware that a camera was recording them.
The spontaneity shows. The camera’s presence in the film is unintrusive and the children are, well, children. Cinematic flights, in technique, does not carry Stanley ka Dabba; the matter-of-fact, unstaged recordings of the camera are deliberate. The whole enterprise almost precludes aesthetic frills (barring a beautiful sequence of the opening credits in animation, created by Gitanjali Rao). The camera navigates the narrow spaces of the school, zooming in often to Stanley’s face, hands and fingers, enhancing the boy’s sense of aloneness, despite the sunny exteriors and loud children surrounding him.
Gupte’s triumph is in story, performance and a commitment to portray realistically, the beauty and hardship of childhood. His observations and gaze do not allow sensationalism or sentimentality, which is easy, when, at the heart of a story is a child who is struggling in some way. We get glimpses of Stanley’s inner life through small gestures and fleeting expressions. Debut actor Partho, who plays Stanley, shines.
Stanley ka Dabba reminded me of a film called Nobody Knows from 2004, a festival circuit favourite, made by one of Japan’s most interesting directors, Hirokazu Kore-eda. It is based on a true story. Four siblings, all from different fathers, are abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment, with a promise to return. It’s a harrowing yet beautiful watch. Shot in quasi-documentary style, much like Stanley ka Dabba, we become witness to every move and gesture of the four children. Unlike Gupte’s film, which has some genuinely funny scenes, Nobody Knows is a plunge towards uncertainty and fear but both films are odes to childhood without the crutch of kneejerk sentimentality and so are excellent recent examples of cinema’s power to portray children the way they actually are—pure, but not without guile and strength.
Stanley ka Dabba begins slowly and progresses slowly. Stanley Fernandes arrives in his school early and is often caught making garbling noises in the classroom. He is Rosy Miss’s favourite (the English teacher, played by Divya Dutta). Mrs Iyer, the frosty Science teacher (Divya Jagdale, confident and convincing in the role) and Babubhai Verma or Khadoos (played with unerring commitment by Gupte; he is the other character in the film besides Stanley who gets extreme close-ups of the most minute of expressions) are not smitten. Khadoos is a shameless, simpering evil man who gorges on the lunch boxes of students. Class after class, break after break, semester after semester, Khadoos is a butt of everyone’s joke and a cause of exasperation. He is particularly spiteful of Stanley because he often does not carry a dabba from home and his friends share their lunch with him. Khadoos is a twisted man whose backstory and future I was interested in from the first frame in which he appeared but Gupte is not interested in exploring him. The character, built up entirely on his one fetish, has a rather abrupt exit. The rest of Stanley ka Dabba concerns its hero’s small, but catharsis-inducing triumphs. But nothing quite prepares you for the film’s end.
There are some meaningful visual preoccupations, even repetitions, in Stanley ka Dabba, one of which is food. Cooking, eating and tucking food into a dabba in Indian kitchens is shown in long sequences, underlining a belief in the immense power of food over human life—how it can be affirming and celebratory as well as evil. The film’s slow pace complements the story, but it still felt at least 20 minutes too long towards the end. But that’s a minor quibble. I consider it one of the two good films of 2011 so far. If you enjoy cinema for the art form it is or just to laugh and cry and have some fun, Stanley ka Dabba is for you.
Stanley ka Dabba releases in theatres on Friday.